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The Leafy Green Road To Good Mental Health

  • Subject: [cg] The Leafy Green Road To Good Mental Health
  • From: Laura Berman laura@foodshare.net
  • Date: Tue, 02 Dec 2003 20:03:49 -0500

From the Wall Street Journal

The Leafy Green Road
To Good Mental Health

New Science Points to Benefits
Of Weeding, Watering Gardens


Stuck in an emotional funk after a personal loss, Janice Mawhinney couldn't
muster the enthusiasm to tend her backyard garden in Toronto for three
years. Then, inexplicably, one day this past spring, she found herself
vigorously weeding again, her spirits slowly blossoming along with a
long-concealed blue lupine, a pink and white bleeding heart, several Shasta
daisies, and a host of other recovered plants.

As Ms. Mawhinney restored the garden, it in turn helped restore her. Now,
"every morning I rush to look out at all the color through my bathroom
window," says Ms. Mawhinney, a 58-year-old reporter at the Toronto Star. "In
just a few minutes I feel refreshed."

Common sense and experience tell us that hiking in the wild or working in a
garden can be emotionally restorative. Now, scientists are beginning to
understand why: Gardening -- or simply observing a lush landscape -- holds a
powerful ability to promote measurable improvements in mental and even
physical health.

Vertical gardening methods like this at the Chicago Botanic Garden's Buehler
Enabling Garden not only promote easy tending but also clearly outline
planting areas for people with low vision.

Building on the science, a new practice of horticulture therapy is
sprouting. Increasingly, hospitals are using the insights of environmental
psychologists to build small but elaborate gardens for patients, visitors
and even stressed-out doctors. Some urban botanical gardens and
health-rehabilitation centers are creating so-called healing gardens with
horticultural-therapy programs that teach patients and the public about the
recuperative effect the natural world has on the human psyche.

"If a researcher had seriously proposed two decades ago that gardens could
improve medical outcomes, the position would have been met with skepticism
by most behavioral scientists, and with derision by most physicians," says
Roger Ulrich, a Texas A&M University professor and a leading researcher in
the effects of environment on behavior. "We now have studies showing that
psychological and environmental factors can affect physiological systems and
health status."

One study published in June found that people who were exposed to nature
recovered from stress more quickly than others who weren't; what's more, the
positive effects took hold within just a few minutes. Dr. Ulrich's research
has showed that hospitalized patients whose windows looked out at landscape
scenery recovered from surgery more quickly than those without such access.
Other studies have found that simply viewing a garden or another natural
vista can quickly reduce blood pressure and pulse rate and can even increase
brain activity that controls mood-lifting feelings.

A growing body of evidence suggests that humans are hard-wired not just to
enjoy a pleasant view of nature, but to actually exploit it, much like a
drug, to relax and refresh after a stressful experience. Our earliest
ancestors, Dr. Ulrich theorizes, likely needed a way to swiftly recover from
a traumatic experience such as a hunt, a battle or an attack from a wild
animal. "You can imagine that those who could look out at the open savannah,
seeing its safety and tranquility, and quickly feel calm but also alert to
their environment would likely have a survival benefit over others," Dr.
Ulrich says.

Scientists have documented this restorative effect in a number of controlled
experiments. In the study published in the June issue of the Journal of
Environmental Psychology, Terry Hartig and colleagues at the University of
California at Irvine measured markedly different physiological, attentional
and mood changes in test subjects exposed to natural or urban settings.

In the experiment, 112 young adults were assigned a variety of stressful
tasks, including driving to a site they hadn't visited before. Afterward,
the people who sat in a room with tree views and then walked through a
nature preserve showed declining blood pressure and substantially more
positive change in their feelings than those who sat in a windowless room
and then walked in an area of medium-density urban development.

Some of the changes could be measured within minutes of being exposed to the
natural settings, says Dr. Hartig, now at Uppsala University in Gavle,
Sweden. He provides advice to several European cities whose planners are
considering expanding so-called urban forests.

'Immediate Calming Effect'

James Raimes, 64 years old and retired from publishing, experiences an
effect like this when he returns to his modest country home in Chatham, N.Y.
"The sounds, the smells, and the sights have an immediate calming effect as
soon as I step out of the car," Mr. Raimes says.

Many gardeners say they lose track of time while weeding, planting or
mulching. "I can and often do garden from sunup to sundown, to the exclusion
of many other things in my life," Mr. Raimes admits. Indeed, as people who
move to fecund environments like Florida's can attest, the biological draw
of gardening can be powerfully addictive -- though it's clearly a much safer
outlet than other addictions.

Many cultures have long understood the harmonizing influences of flora.
Henry Thoreau, the early American naturalist, wrote persuasively about the
impact of nature on human well-being in his book, "Walden." The pioneering
landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, "understood the need for
fatigued urban dwellers to recover their capacity to focus in the context of
nature," says Stephen Kaplan, who, along with his wife, Rachel, at the
University of Michigan have helped found the field of environmental
psychology. In the 1860s, Mr. Olmsted employed his insights in designing New
York City's Central Park, with its acres of rambling walks and natural
vistas, as well as a host of other city parks modeled after it.

"The gardens of the ancient Egyptian nobility, the walled gardens of Persian
settlements in Mesopotamia, and the gardens of merchants in medieval Chinese
cities indicate that early urban peoples went to considerable lengths to
maintain contact with nature," according to Texas A&M's Dr. Ulrich. More
recently, Harvard zoologist Edward O. Wilson has written extensively on this
natural affinity, which he calls "biophilia" and defines as a partly genetic
tendency by humans to respond positively to nature.

The latest research and writings are serving as the intellectual basis for
the relatively new practice of horticultural therapy. Practitioners say
their experience shows that gardening can have an especially beneficial
mental-health impact because it provides a sense of control, a psychological
counter to stress and anxiety. This is especially important for patients who
are recovering from stroke or other traumas or are learning to live with a
physical or mental disability, says Teresia Hazen, who oversees
horticulture-therapy programs for Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore.

"For patients who find themselves restricted by a disability, even the
simplest gardening experience, such as growing a potted plant from a
cutting, gives them a feeling of control," says Ms. Hazen. "Gardening , more
than most rehab activities, has the ability to be very distracting," she
adds, noting that simply taking people's minds off their problems alleviates
pain and depression.

'A Source of Relief'

Ms. Hazen recently helped design an award-winning garden in Legacy's Good
Samaritan Hospital that has a dual purpose. Rehab patients receive therapy
in it, she says, but also "many doctors and nurses just come by and sit or
stroll or just stand and gaze, maybe just for a few moments. It's easy to
see it draws them and is a source of relief."

Now, several city-run botanical gardens are hiring horticulture therapists
to run public programs to expose city dwellers to nature's therapeutic
benefits. Chicago's Botanic Garden provides a range of horticultural-therapy
services -- including planting, weeding, cultivating, watering and
harvesting -- both to private health agencies that treat the handicapped and
to people who come in off the street.

Even some prisons are looking to gardens for relief. The New York
Horticultural Society directs one such program, called the Greenhouse
Project, at New York's Riker's Island facility. Inmates work in the garden,
but some have also been allowed out to build gardens in public spaces
throughout the city.

Several schools of architecture now have academics on staff who specialize
in studying what kinds of gardens are most likely to attract users. "Some
hospitals just throw in a few bushes and trees and hope they are
accomplishing the wanted effect," says Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor at
University of California, Berkeley, who has traveled the world analyzing
gardens in health-care settings. A better garden, she says, "allows people
to interact with the natural setting."

Write to Michael Waldholz at mike.waldholz@wsj.com


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